The Bones of the Ox
So, I was reading this post by somebody that was going on about cultural appropriation. At some point, I get that you might be ticked if somebody not from your group makes money off his presentation of your culture -- especially if he misunderstands who you are. And if people are mocking your culture by indulging in irritating stereotypes, yeah, that can get irksome.
Some things, though, ought to be beneath notice. I mean, throwing a St. Patrick's Day party with lots of faux leprechauns and green beer doesn't bother the real Irish, who are mostly bemused by it. Likewise, complaining that serving tacos in the cafeteria on Cinco de Mayo -- especially if they've been Americanized with non-Mexican ingredients and flavors, yada yada -- is petty. I mean, all
foods get appropriated and reconfigured, by everybody. Pizza in America is not the same as its traditional antecedent in Italy; in fact, it's so different, I once saw a photo of a pizza parlor in Rome, whose sign declared in neon, "New York Pizza." Even over there, some people want it that way. And what do we do with Chicken Tikka Masala, which was invented in Scotland,
for heaven's sake, because somebody wanted it with gravy: is it Indian cuisine, or Scots?
But let us not get distracted by food. Let's go for high culture: art and literature. Should it bug African-Americans that the folktales associated with Uncle Remus
were written by a white author, Joel Chandler Harris? I could see where it might, particularly if Harris had used his black narrator as a mask for his white point of view, a la Amos and Andy,
or if he told his own stories using characters from plantation folktales, so that their African heritage were mere window dressing. But critics then and now usually concede that Harris's Uncle Remus persona was accurate to the late plantation blacks of his youth, that his use of dialect was dead-on, and that the tales as he presented them were pretty much as they were told in their original context. Which is why Harris is often referred to as a folklorist rather than a writer of fiction. Still, he was white, and that rankles some folks.
Or take the case of George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's opera, Porgy and Bess.
The story is powerful, the characterizations respectful. The music was composed in the style of African-American folk music. African-American artists still sing "Summertime," but some of them have ambiguous feelings about the first great black music drama being written by three white guys. More of their whiteness shows through in Porgy and Bess,
probably, than does Harris's whiteness in Uncle Remus,
but still: it's a great work, and it presents an African-American story faithfully and well.
And here's the thing. At the time
each was produced, could anybody else have done these things? Could any authentic plantation story tellers have gotten published during Reconstruction? What African-American composers and librettists had the training and resources in the 1930s to produce a work like Porgy and Bess?
And shouldn't knowing Uncle Remus
or Porgy and Bess
whet one's appetite for more? Shouldn't we appreciate Harris and the Gershwins and Heyward for creating an audience to be addressed by African-American poets and artists and storytellers?
Yeah, I know. It's still too racially charged. Some people won't be able to hear my argument because of who I
am, making it. So let me consider the issue from my own cultural tradition.
The first modern publication of Beowulf
was in 1815 by Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin, a Dane. He came across the only manuscript in England and noted right away that Danes were mentioned in the first line: Hwæt we Gar-Dena in geardægum
("Lo, of Spear-Danes in days of yore"). He thought he'd stumbled across something like a Danish national epic. Pity it wasn't in Old Norse.
only takes place in Denmark. Its hero is a Geat, a Gothlander. Swedes and Frisians and Jutes and Heathobards also make appearances. The only thing English about it is the language, and that is a thorough job: even all the names have been translated from Old Norse into Old English (e.g., Hroarr
). So, did the English poet appropriate a Danish story? Or was it originally a Geatish story? Or is it a quintessentially English story set in a romantic, foreign past? It may seem silly now, but in the 19th Century, Danish and English and German nationalisms fought over the possession of their ancient literatures. Jakob Grimm raised hackles in Denmark and Norway over his insistence on referring to their languages and literatures as "Germanic," especially since the oldest written works in this culture area were in Old English, and the most extensive were in Old Norse/Icelandic, and the whole idea of a standard German
language isn't even older than Martin Luther, thank you very much.
Or let's talk about King Arthur and the stories of Camelot and the Grail. How English can these be? Arthur himself, if he existed, would have been a Briton: what the Angles and Saxons called the Wealas,
"(Romanized) foreigners," from which we get Wales (and walnuts, incidentally). Arthur fought the Germanic invaders to a standstill at Mount Badon. He was on the other
side, for pity's sake. He's not English at all.
The earliest written sources of Arthurian tales are mentions in the Welsh Triads
and a few Welsh short stories. Then, the Matter of Britain was taken up by Anglo-Norman writers, who wrote in French.
Wace and Layamon wrote in Norman French, Chretien de Troyes and others wrote in Parisian French, and both were enjoyed by a French-speaking court in England. By the time people like Thomas Malory started writing all these things down in Middle English, fashions had changed in the court, and it was no longer vulgar to speak English. But all this raises the question: to whom does Arthuriana belong? What culture does he represent? Oh, that was long ago and far away, you say. But once upon a time, it mattered.
I am sympathetic to those who are proud of their culture and want it presented authentically. At the same time, all aspects of culture are, as Tolkien pointed out, quoting George Dasent, the bones of yesterday's ox from which new cooks are always making today's soup. Everything goes in the pot and everything influences everything else. Irish step dancing was appropriated by African-Americans and became tap dancing. German immigrants in Texas couldn't find the pork or venison they liked to make the kind of Schnitzel
they did back home, so they used beef and we got Country-fried Steak. The driving bass line we all love in Rock 'n' Roll was first explored by some classical composers who were originally trained as church organists. The ideal of the medieval knight is a fusion of the Germanic warrior hero converted to Roman Christianity. New combinations do not mean that the traditional combinations are no longer good. You can appreciate a thing in its original form, but you can also appreciate what it became when other people picked it up.